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Power Tends to Corrupt

Lord Acton's Study of Liberty


Publication Year: 2012

Lord Acton (1834–1902) is often called a historian of liberty. A great historian and political thinker, he had a rare talent for reaching beneath the surface and revealing the hidden springs that move the world. While endeavoring to understand the components of a truly free society, Acton attempted to see how the principles of self-determination and freedom worked in practice, from antiquity to his own time. But though he penned hundreds of papers, essays, reviews, letters, and ephemera, the ultimate book of his findings and views on the history of liberty remained unwritten. Reading a book a day for years, he still could not keep pace with the output of his time, and finally, dejected, he gave up. Today, Acton is mainly known for a single maxim, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Published by: Northern Illinois University Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 1-6


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

Anyone beginning a large research project can understand my feelings of confusion and even hopelessness when I attempted to write the first page of this book. After a few years of research that were less rather than more intensive (a full-time teaching position and various administrative duties allowed me to proceed at only a moderate pace), ...

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pp. 3-13

Lord Acton is often called a historian, or even the historian, of liberty. Indeed, among his many interests and pursuits, liberty was a lifelong passion and the central theme of his writing. True, his long-term project, “The History of Liberty,” was never realized and turned into “the greatest book that never was written,” as one observer termed it.2 ...

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1—Acton’s Life and Mission

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pp. 14-34

For an ordinary reader unacquainted with Lord Acton, he may appear to be the epitome of an English and Victorian aristocrat: aloof and condescending, untroubled by the problems of ordinary men and women, shielded from poverty or prejudice, privileged in every way, and disposed to take advantage of every opportunity open to his class. ...

Part I—The Foundation of Liberty

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pp. 35-36

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2—Liberty’s Ancient Roots: From Ancient Israel to the Fall of the Roman Empire

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pp. 37-59

Even if mature forms of liberty emerged in Western civilization around the eighteenth century as a result of the growth of English constitutionalism and together with the American Revolution, freedom did not come out of nowhere, in a complete and advanced shape. On the contrary, its origins can be traced back to antiquity and then observed throughout Western history, ...

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3—A Bumpy Road to Success: Liberty in the Middle Ages

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pp. 60-80

The late Roman Empire proved to be immune to any influences that might have allowed for the evolution of its institutions and laws toward greater freedom. The despotic tradition in Rome was too old, too rigid, and too strong to yield. As far as liberty was concerned, the empire turned out to be impervious. ...

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4—The Great Reversal: Modern Infatuation with Power

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pp. 81-102

Early modern Europe was, in Acton’s words, the result of “a series of violent shocks” that cast off the medieval past and opened a new beginning. Its close was even more dramatic: the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era, which turned the continent upside down. In the history of liberty, the period roughly between 1492 and 1789 played an important role, but what was that role? ...

Part II—Anglo-American Liberty

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pp. 103-104

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5—English Liberty: The Birth of Mature Liberty

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pp. 105-124

Early modern Europe threw Western civilization a thousand years back, to the late Roman Empire as far as liberty is concerned. In terms of relations between the rulers and the ruled, authority and the people, central government and regional self-government, and church versus state,the absolutism of modern monarchs was a thorough reversal ...

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6—The High Point of Liberty: Colonial America and the Foundation of the Republic

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pp. 125-144

The weaknesses of the political order that developed in England as the result of the Glorious Revolution eventually led to such corruption of English politics, especially under George II and George III (1727–1810), that by 1770 the situation in Great Britain seemed almost as bad as in 1688. ...

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7—The American Experience: Between the Union’s Founding and the Civil War

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pp. 145-172

The American Civil War (1861–1865) was the last phase of American history that Acton considered important for the history of liberty. In this context, he pronounced some of his most remarkable (and controversial) thoughts on the nature of democracy, the perils of unrestricted rule by the majority, and the cost of disregarding minority rights and interests. ...

Part III—The Liberty of Revolutionary Dreams

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pp. 173-174

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8—The French Revolution: A Triumph of Revolutionary Tyranny

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pp. 175-224

From what has been said in the preceding chapters, it should be obvious that Acton is not particularly fond of France, its people, or its culture. The first epigraph above confirms this and even bespeaks a strong bias against France. But Acton is not merely a Francophobe. His family had a French branch, he spoke French, ...

Part IV—Civic versus Civil Liberty

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pp. 225-226

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9—Acton’s Ideal Polity and Its Alternatives

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pp. 227-261

Acton never wrote a separate essay on his ideal polity, the best practical regime that would meet most, if not all, of his requirements. However, he left many scattered remarks on the merits and defects of past and present political communities. In searching for his ideal, we can draw on the vast materials already cited in this book, ...

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Conclusions—Acton’s Legacy and Lessons

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pp. 262-272

Although Acton never produced a book on liberty and consequently did not have an opportunity to articulate his definitive view on the subject, this does not mean that he bore no coherent theory of political liberty in his mind, nor that we cannot retrieve this theory from his writing. ...


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pp. 273-306

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 307-312


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pp. 313-324

E-ISBN-13: 9781609090791
Print-ISBN-13: 9780875804651

Page Count: 340
Publication Year: 2012